For years the fanatical Idirans have fought a war against the all-inclusive Culture, a liberal, progressive, moneyless society composed mainly of humanity - in all its myriad forms - and sentient machines. An especially gifted Mind, one of the super-intelligent machines which pilot the Culture's ships, has narrowly escaped destruction by hiding on Schar's World, a memorial to a destroyed civilisation held sacred by the almost god-like Dra'azon. Both sides want the Mind, and it falls to Bora Horza Gobachul, a Changer agent freshly rescued from an undercover mission, to try and reach it for the Idirans.
One of my closest friends bought me Consider Phlebas as a belated birthday gift last year, as I had been lamenting the fact that I haven't read any "proper" science fiction in ages. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by "proper", but whatever it is, Banks' novel fits the bill. It's a sweeping space opera, complete with daring spaceship battles, big dumb objects, a galactic war and plenty of social commentary, though its largely bereft of weird aliens. The Idirans - tripedal, near-immortal giants - are the only non-humans to feature much, and though we meet two or three individuals, they do come across as a fairly standard example of the "fanatic warrior race" archetype.
This isn't hard sci-fi, either; this is firmly in the grand sweeping epic camp. Plenty of the stuff that happens is pure fantasy, but since it doesn't pretend to be anything else, I've no quibbles with that. Indeed the book was extraordinary fun: I found myself turning thirty to forty pages at a sitting, reading well into the night, needing to know how Horza was going to get himself out of his current ridiculous predicament. He's a curious character - very much a hard bastard anti-hero with a (sort of) heart of gold - but since he's almost always up against more evil bastards, we never want to see him fail. Interestingly for the novel that introduces the Culture - and there are several more following this one - our main protagonist hates them, so much so that he works for the Idirans seemingly out of spite. There are asides in which a high-up Culture advisor relaxing on holiday is trying to plan the best way of capturing Horza, but these are very far removed from the action, so it's fascinating to see a society described largely by people outside it.
If I have any quibble with the novel, it's only that the ending seems to come quite abruptly. There's an epilogue detailing the outcome of the Idiran-Culture war, and of a few of the surviving characters, but it managed to leave me fairly unsatisfied. There are also some odd conventions; the humans in the book speak with English vernacular (though they aren't speaking actual English) and despite their wild genetic diversity - one has short fur, while Horza, as a Changer, is able to alter his build and features and grow biological weapons - are generally like us both physically and emotionally, yet at the end of the book we discover the War took place in Earth's medieval period, and that these "humans" have nothing to do with Earth. All of which left me feeling a bit...confused? Not cheated, that's too harsh, but certainly feeling a bit...odd.
Anyway, I finished this a couple of weeks ago, and I'm now a hundred or more pages into Titus Groan, the first volume in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. It's my first foray in Peake, having taped but never watched the BBC miniseries; and at first blow I'm loving it. There's something oddly right about a novel which begins with the titular character's birth, but who - nearly halfway through - is still only a baby. I look forward to seeing where it all goes, but in the meantime I'm loving the prose and the world which Peake has built. (That may be the role-player in me...)